Is leading change the top challenge for leaders?

I was struck by an article in a recent edition of the Economist which looked at the predicament of managers in the current business environment. It summarised them as “burnt-out, distracted and overloaded”.

That seemed to me quite a reasonable picture of life in many of todays’ corporates. It substantiated its conclusions with data from a survey by Adecco which surveyed 16,000 managers across over 20 countries and spoke of the jump in pressure over the last couple of years and the increase in burn-out.

The article discussed the drive to press for better skills and then quickly zoned in on the skills that managers need to develop to be considered ‘good’. It transpired that these are increasingly soft skills rather than finance, intellect and technical capabilities (although these are still very important). 

I didn’t think this was new news. I have always understood soft skills to be the differentiators for most managerial roles (almost by definition in that they tend to demand the management of people not just things). However, it seems that many consultancies, business schools and analysts are suggesting that these soft skills are becoming even more important. 

Why? Because of the rising challenges that face managers who orchestrate people towards a common goal:

  • Greater workforce diversity – e.g. with more women in management, greater ethnic diversity, more international interaction and increasingly diverse outlooks on work and life
  • More hybrid and remote working which makes social signals more difficult to read and building relationships more difficult (see Zhao, Zhang, Noah and Tiede) because of the way our brains work
  • Increasing distraction and disturbance from shorter and less planned interactions with co-workers, through messaging platforms and video calls at the same time as the quiet time of business travel has reduced
  • A more turbulent business environment with international friction, a reemergence of inflation, supply chain disruption and the seemingly every increasing pace of technological change.

So what are the soft skills managers need?

A further piece of work by Adecco* highlighted the goals for which they most wanted coaching. The list is instructive. The top five in order were:

  • Leading change
  • Communication
  • Influence
  • Resilience
  • Emotional intelligence

The fact that companies agreed with the priority of the top three and not the last two is also significant. Companies selected shaping strategy and articulating ambition as their next two and placed resilience and emotional intelligence outside the top twenty… but then they are not the leaders facing the pressure and needing to support their teams

* (with 50,000 managers on their EZRA platform)

But is this really new?

Has this list changed much in the last twenty years? 

That proved a much more difficult question to answer! Finding priority skills for managers from the start of this century is tough.  The best I could come up with was a survey from a US Business School in 1998. It identified the most critical skills business and faculty leaders thought effective managers needed and the top six (there was a tie for fifth place!) were:

  • Communication and interpersonal skills
  • An ethical or spiritual orientation
  • The ability to manage change
  • The ability to motivate
  • Analytic and problem solving skills
  • Being a strategic/visionary manager

This is similar in many ways  – change leadership, communications and influence and motivation are all the same and strategy also figures in the company list in 2023 as it does here. I also think the recent survey fails to pick up on a growing emphasis for managers, captured in the 1998 research – the ethical/spiritual. This is a rising pressure point for those leading generations Y and Z, (i.e. anyone under 40) as behaviours seem even more morally infused than for older generations.

Overall it feels to me that the key criteria for effective management has not changed but managers are feeling even more pressure over the need to succeed (which ironically could make it more difficult for them!).

This also reflects some of my experience in working with leaders. People feel under more pressure and more exposed.

Does this mean anything for organisations?

I think it does – both for leadership and for leading change. Here are three takeaways:

  1. We need good initiation and support for those moving to managing people for the first time.

While large organisations often excel in this due to robust HR departments and well-established appraisal systems, many other environments lack structured initiation into managerial responsibilities. In these places, individuals can find themselves promoted or recruited into managerial positions without adequate preparation for the distinct challenges this role entails. They might lack support in crucial areas such as staff appraisals, effective delegation, navigating difficult conversations, and balancing task management with relationship building.

  1. Leaders need to build and maintain self awareness and resilience, especially when leading significant change.

I sense a growing need to bolster leaders operating in turbulent environments and when they are mandated to press for significant change and innovation, especially in large unwieldy bureaucracies. 

Developing resilience skills becomes pivotal in sustaining leaders’ energy during protracted change. Equally critical is the support provided to identify and cultivate these skills, whilst concurrently strengthening the teams. This support is fundamental to sustaining and adapting changes in the organisation.

  1. Creating connections, fostering a shared language, and establishing positive behavioral norms within teams are vital components of effective teamwork.

While diversity brings valuable benefits such as enhanced innovation and adaptability, it also poses challenges by potentially undermining unity and camaraderie. A recent article in Forbes underscores how diversity, if not effectively managed, can lead to feelings of isolation among team members.

Leadership involves setting collective goals and fostering a strong sense of shared ownership. This necessitates effective communication with its shorthand, analogies and language. Linda Hill at Harvard calls out the importance of this. Encouraging curiosity, active listening, and the ability to advocate one’s viewpoint are integral to developing innovative collaborations.

Without establishing strong connections and a shared sense of purpose, diversity within teams can lead to frustration, hindering progress and impeding the development of the cohesive ‘us’ mentality that’s essential for effective teamwork.